THEATRE

Ambassadors to a world of glitter

ANN FINLAYSON November 25 1985
THEATRE

Ambassadors to a world of glitter

ANN FINLAYSON November 25 1985

Ambassadors to a world of glitter

THEATRE

It was Canada’s night to shine in Tinseltown. First, such pillars of the Hollywood establishment as actor Charlton Heston and Mike Medavoy, executive vice-president of Orion Pictures, helped to launch the Stratford Festival’s first national American tour at the chic Los Angeles restaurant Le St. Germain. Then a cavalcade of limousines conveyed the celebrants to the James A. Doolittle Theatre, where they joined a sellout crowd for the Ontario company’s performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. After the play the cast retreated to the sleek Arbat Restaurant, where they were fêted by Ontario Premier David Peterson and his actress wife, Shelley. Declared Nicholas Pennell, who plays Malvolio in Twelfth Night: “We had an audience that was generous and really with us. Tonight was a joy.”

That glittering welcome on Nov. 9 was the high point of Canada Month in Los Angeles, a celebration of Canadian culture. It was also a major boost for the beleaguered Stratford Festival, which has been grappling with internal squabbles and serious financial problems for more than five years. The festival’s deficit now stands at more than $3 million. Former artistic director John Hirsch, who was succeeded by John Neville at the end of October, mounted the 12-week, $2.3-million tour—the company’s first American foray since 1972—in order to showcase Stratford south of the border. With performances of Twelfth Night and King Lear scheduled in Seattle, Chicago, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the festival is hoping to enhance its reputation among U.S. theatregoers, who account for 30 per cent of the audience at home.

Critics greeted the Los Angeles opening with mixed reviews, but it drew raves from an audience that included Canadian expatriates Christopher Plummer and Lloyd Bochner. The two veteran actors appeared together 28 years ago in a Stratford performance of Twelfth Night under Tyrone Guthrie (later Sir Tyrone), the festival’s first artistic director. Said Plummer: “I was thrilled. I think it is absolutely essential that a major company tour. For a while I was terrified that Stratford was going to fall into a regional theatre slot.”

Still, the party mood in Hollywood did not entirely calm the turbulence that buffets the Shakespearean festival. Under Neville, who has successful-

ly headed Edmonton’s Citadel and Halifax’s Neptune theatres, Stratford is in a state of flux. More than half of the actors on the tour, as well as executive director Gerry Eidred, will not be returning to the festival. Meanwhile, the British-born actor and director is giving Stratford a controversial new face. His plans for the next season include mounting a littleknown musical, Richard Rodgers’s and

Lorenz Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse, on the main stage. Even more contentious is his decision to present Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, three relatively unfamiliar and rarely performed late Shakespearean romances.

Neville will be fighting a trend toward smaller audiences at the festival, which has seen attendance drop from 75-per-cent capacity in 1983 to 65 per cent last year. And Neville’s adventurousness has the support of Stratford’s outgoing chairman of the board and Toronto Life magazine publisher Peter Herrndorf. Said Herrndorf: “One of the complaints of recent years is that we have been too conservative.” Both Neville and Herrndorf say they are confident that Stratford has achieved some financial stability. Declared Neville: “I have inherited a deficit that isn’t mine and all I can do is strive for

artistic excellence and try to cut expenditures. These goals are not mutually exclusive.”

But Hirsch, whose five-year term ended last month, told Maclean's in Los Angeles that he doubts that Stratford’s new look will attract the crowds necessary to ease the festival’s longstanding financial problems. Declared Hirsch: “Every artistic director dreams of the economic situation

where there is enough of a cushion to do the kind of program John Neville has planned. I say it’s a hell of a risky thing to do.”

For American audiences, Stratford’s internal disputes are unimportant. All 10 Los Angeles performances sold out and the company has been invited back next year. And Shakespeare lovers in Chicago snapped up all of the King Lear tickets weeks ago. Said Pebbles Wadsworth, director of the University of California (Los Angeles) Center for the Arts, which sponsored the Los Angeles leg of the tour: “Some people said we went out on a limb in committing to Stratford. But this is one of the great English-speaking theatres in the world.” It is now up to Neville to maintain that reputation.

ANN FINLAYSON

VALERIE ELIA